I only notice the liquid in the 55-gallon barrel after I’ve been in the water research lab for over an hour.
It’s a deep greenish-brown, the color of over-steeped tea, with a thin skin of oily scum on the top. Several tubes are dipped into it, draining to undisclosed locations. “I could have fallen into this at any moment!” I say, peering in.
“Oh, that? That’s just humic and tannic acids and test dust,” says lab supervisor Zac Gleason. “You could probably drink that right now, if you wanted.”
“We don’t think of ourselves as making recreational products.”
On a sunny Friday in September, I’m visiting MSR’s dedicated water research lab, located at their headquarters in downtown Seattle. Here, a team of six scientists with advanced degrees in chemical engineering, biochemistry, microbiology, environmental science, and cellular and molecular biology work on clean water solutions.
The results of their research go towards building water treatment products for everyone: From international nonprofits bringing large-scale devices to the developing world; to United States military looking to neutralize chemical warfare agents; to you, the average outdoorsperson bringing a water treatment device on a weekend backpacking trip.
“We look at a problem to figure out how to solve it, instead of trying to apply existing technology to every problem,” said Gleason. “How long is it going to have to last? What’s the flow rate? How do you clean it, and how much time does it take? And durability—can you freeze it? Drop it? Crush it?”
Lack of government oversight into water filtration devices
The most important part of any outdoor excursion is access to clean water for drinking, washing and cooking. Many backpackers and campers carry one of a variety of solutions—chemical additives, purifiers, filters, microfilters, UV light treatment devices, or simply boiling water on a camp stove.
But given how important it is to drink clean water—and how terrible the consequences could be if your water treatment device fails—there is no overarching governmental oversight of water treatment devices. “We don’t think of ourselves as making recreational products,” said MSR principal research scientist Tim Oriard. “We think of them as healthcare products.”
Outdoor manufacturers may use one of three protocols advanced by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) to determine if a microbiological filter is effective. But there is little to no consistency in how those protocols are evaluated, and most manufacturers simply do not have MSR’s resources to thoroughly test their devices. For example, many might run one liter of water through a device and send that to an outside lab for testing. At this one-of-a-kind facility, MSR will run one thousand liters of water through a device—or ten thousand. And not only do they test each device as it’s being developed, they also test devices plucked randomly off the production line to make sure that you, the backpacker, will be able to rely on that water filter in the field.
That makes the MSR lab a valuable resource for not only the manufacturer, but for non-governmental organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and PATH, a global health nonprofit aimed at improving the lives of women and children around the world. The United States military also commissions clean water solutions from them.
On my visit, a tub of water dyed with the chemical compound methylene blue is sitting on a countertop. “Malathion can be used as a surrogate for organophosphate based chemical warfare agents, and this methylene blue can similarly be used as a surrogate for a number of other organic contaminants in water,” noted Oriard.
MSR’s water science
One of the most exciting parts is the microbiology lab. Water from unknown sources can contain one of four different types of waterborne pathogens: Protozoa like giardia and cryptosporidium; bacteria like E. coli and salmonella; viruses like rotavirus; and parasites like hookworm. As someone who once lost ten pounds in two days after contracting the bacteria Campylobacter while kayaking, I can testify that it’s important that your treatment device be able to neutralize each of these.
“We batch-test products off the line to a level that you’d find in a military-grade test.”
In MSR’s microbiology lab—which is a biosafety Level 2 lab, following protocols to isolate dangerous biological agents—Gleason and Oriard oversee testing procedures to infect water with any of a variety of pathogens, from staphylococcus to strep, E. coli and salmonella, or even polio.
Once MSR’s team has pumped the water through the treatment devices, they take samples and see if any pathogens have survived to grow on agar plates. It doesn’t take long to find out. After all, one E. coli cell can multiply into one million over the course of six to eight hours. Not only do they test each device as it’s being developed, but their proximity to MSR’s production warehouse means that they can test randomly selected devices for quality assurance.
On my visit, several models of the Guardian, MSR’s signature portable purifier, sit on a countertop, fresh off the production line and ready for testing. A machine designed by a former intern from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and affectionately named “Sally”, after her—pumps thousands of liters of water through each device, which saved the grateful scientists the labor of pumping ten thousand liters by hand.
“We batch-test products off the line to a level that you’d find in a military-grade test,” said Gleason. “We’re volunteering to test at a higher level than what’s required.”
On our way out of the microbiology lab, Gleason shows me a Nalgene full of water that can only be described as “brown and mucky.” “This was sent to us from a soldier participating in a military exercise in Thailand,” he said. The United States military and health workers from around the globe send samples to MSR’s lab for analysis, so that both they and MSR can be sure that they’re tackling the water quality issues that their customers will see in the field.
That means when you pack a Guardian for a backpacking trip across Vietnam, you can be sure it’ll be effective at treating the water there.
What’s next for MSR and clean water
Whether you’re pumping water out of a pure mountain lake; brushing your teeth in Bangladesh, or dealing with disrupted municipal water in the wake of a disaster like the recent Louisiana flooding, water from unknown sources should always be treated. And when you deal with water treatment holistically, as MSR does, it is easy to transfer technologies from one application to another.
“As an outdoor business, we have to research if something is actually going to work.”
At the moment, the water lab is working on a number of projects, from making desalination kits more affordable and easier to operate, to the application of ferrate as a chemical water treatment. Ferrate has several advantages over other common chemicals like chlorine or iodine. When added to water, ferrate has arguably a lower taste and smell threshold. Also, its higher oxidation potential has been shown to rip apart pesticide molecules and causes a flocculating effect—that is to say, you can see dirt clumping and massing, making it easier to remove.
But one of their projects, the Community Chlorine Maker, is already finished and well on its way to saving lives in hurricane-battered Haiti and elsewhere. Together with PATH, World Vision and Operation Blessing International, MSR will be launching a crowdfunding campaign on October 17th to provide for the distribution of the Community Chlorine Maker for 500,000 people in refugee camps and disaster zones over the next five years.
Not only is the device an effective solution in areas requiring humanitarian aid, but it’s also necessary emergency equipment in earthquake zones like, say, the Pacific Northwest. With a salt solution and one 12-volt battery—easily found in toys and mopeds—one Community Chlorine Maker can make enough chlorine in five minutes to treat water for an entire neighborhood to drink, bathe and wash food and clothing.
On the other end of the treatment spectrum, in 2017 MSR will release the Trailshot Microfilter, a personal pocket filter the size of an energy bar that makes it easy to access and drink directly from the most shallow sources of water while mountain biking or trail running, where water’s heavy weight can be an issue. Such innovations—like the Guardian’s self-cleaning filter, or the Trailshot’s hand-held size—are not possible without shifting your way of thinking from conventional, pre-existing products.
Martin Maisonpierre, communications director at MSR and Cascade Designs, explained, “We do so much stuff that no one will ever see, but we’d rather have an understanding of the problem before we come up with solutions. As an outdoor business, we have to research if something is actually going to work.”